Condensed version published in Rappler.
The town’s festivities have begun once the vinyl banderitas are strung together and hoisted atop wooden poles. They are left hanging like low-lying rainbows on both sides of the road, an invitation for the traveler to partake in the ongoing revelry. Somewhere down the road are a few tarpaulin streamers – with a photo of the town’s patron saint to the left, town mayor’s to the right, and the obligatory well-wishes in between.
Past the outskirts, past tracts of fields and clusters of trees ripe for harvest, the road leads to a thicker, denser collective of homes and establishments. As one approaches the town center, the banderitas start to grow in number and form a canopy above passersby and revelers alike. A drum and lyre band may be spotted marching on the streets parading the patron saint’s effigy, causing vehicular traffic to grind to a halt.
To the stranger, this is an obstruction; to the familiar, this is homecoming.
Welcome to the town fiesta, a long-running annual tribute to the conduit to the Catholic soul’s salvation. Festivities come in the form of suckling pigs amidst lavish feasts of plenty, comely barangay beauty contests at the plaza, and nights out at the much-anticipated perya.
The economics of fanfare
The perya is a constant fixture in town fiestas, a cause of excitement for children and adults alike. It is an excitement as palpable, but not as genteel, as the anticipation of a foreign pop act coming to Manila. Rural Philippines, in spite of the SM and Jollibee invasion, still has a soft spot for all things familiar yet fleeting, so long as they are loud and bright and gaudy. The perya is a casino, a circus, and an amusement park all in one – a small town’s center of nighttime activity for a week or two.
Most of the time, the perya is propped up in an open field close to the town center, or right by the square if the plaza is spacious enough. It is a nocturnal business, a wilderness of painted plywood and steel at daytime. However, once the sun has set and the stars are out, the perya transforms into an oasis of flickering incandescent and neon.
If one were to map out a typical perya, most of its real estate is comprised of tents with wooden tables barricaded by dos por dos posts rendered cheat-proof for the average Juan de la Cruz, who is stocky at five-foot-five. Some tables are painted in a mosaic of colors; others take on an appropriation of a spread-out deck of cards. On these tables, the fate of one’s five-peso coin is dependent on a table tennis ball thrown into a steel funnel hanging by a rope. The humble bet can double or triple, but if one dares to place one on the Joker, it can go up as much as fifteen times. That, or it gets swept by the arbiter as part of war spoils for the lucky, rambunctious bastard pumping one fist in the air, holding a Pale Pilsen in the other.
There are arcade booths, such as those where one can pick up a pellet gun and shoot plastic action figures for twenty pesos a cartridge. One G.I. Joe down amounts to a piece of candy; ten down merits a small pack of Ding-Dongs; twenty down bags a giant Chippy and a couple of fruity lollipops. It is not only the hand-eye coordination at play here; sometimes, the gentle evening breeze could be treacherous to the budding marksman. Fist-sized vinyl balloons, blown up and tacked up against a corkboard, are ready for darts to burst them at the cost of four pesos a pop. To burst one is dumb luck, to burst more is indicative of reflexes quite sharp.
And of course, the carnival rides. Peryas are never without them. There are many variations of such, but the holy trinity of the ferris wheel, the caterpillar, and the horror train provide enough thrill – to the tune of twenty to thirty pesos per head – to set those who dare hop aboard into a cacophony of ear-piercing shrieks and nervous laughter. Rickety and rusty, the rides are in a state of disrepair, but are generally functional – and quite profitable.
There is a perya monopoly in Floridablanca, Pampanga. Every barangay has its distinct feast day, allowing one particular perya caravan to go around for months on end.
Apart from the usual food stalls, betting tables, game booths, and carnival rides, the Floridablanca perya boasts of a bazaar and a makeshift video game arcade.
“Minsan, ‘pag sinuswerte, umaabot ng hundred thousand ang kita kada gabi,” (On a good night, we rake up to a hundred thousand pesos in profit.) discloses Mang Ompong, owner of the perya going around Floridablanca and its neighboring towns Dinalupihan and Lubao.
Clad in a white crewneck shirt and a fatigue cap that has probably seen pre-Pinatubo days, Mang Ompong walks quietly among the raucous, nervous adolescents scampering for a good spot away from the moth-swarmed incandescent bulb-lined entrance to the ferris wheel. Far from the Western stereotype of the brash, portly circus ringmaster, he is a slightly-built gentleman with a warm, welcoming smile. In his late sixties, weathered by long years of toil under the sun as an ex-quarryman, Mang Ompong speaks with little to no guile, averse to having his photo taken, maintaining that he is not wearing his Sunday best.
He says that his business is largely dependent on his friendships, from barangay chairpersons to reformed delinquents. The former would give him business during fiestas and holidays; the latter he would take under his wing to perform odd jobs, from ferris wheel operator to betting table arbiter.
Mang Ompong’s perya has since expanded into bazaars, with a wide offering of goods for barangays a couple of jeepney rides from the town center. The wares range from clothes to toys, from counterfeit DVDs to bolos fresh from the blacksmith. Fiestas, according to him, boost the local pandayan industry, as Pampagueños prefer to butcher their own swine and poultry for the handaan.
He considers his video game arcade as one of his best investments, having purchased overruns from Clark and Subic junk shops. The games, at five pesos per turn, are of 16-bit video quality, with the game’s chiptunes blaring in dissonance against the novelty songs from the perya’s main speakers. 20 year-old games such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat, are a hit with today’s perya kids, as the nearest video arcade is located in SM San Fernando, two jeepneys and a bus ride away.
Someday, he says, he will have a mobile internet cafe in his perya. “Para pwede mag-Facebook ‘yung mga tao habang nagpe-perya.” (So that people can access Facebook while in the perya.)
Mang Ompong’s caravan is comprised of several families, his included. Their business has rendered the road their home, where they live on for approximately ten months. During lull days, which he proudly says does not happen too often, they stay in his native barangay Del Carmen during lull days. His wife runs the perya’s main food stall, selling hotdogs, barbecue, and softdrinks, with the help of the wives and daughters of his arbiters and operators. Most of them have been working him for the past twenty-two years, dating back to the days when peryas were more spectacle-driven.
The peryas of yore were more of a circus than anything else. There was a time when midgets had to make a spectacle of their diminutive stature by scaring horror train passengers, and people paid to get a woman in a mermaid costume dunked in a gigantic water-filled basin.
“Wala, wala na ‘yang mga binabatong sirena at mga unanong nananakot, ‘di na uso sa atin yan,” (We don’t have the mermaids and midgets anymore, they’re no longer a hit with us.) Mang Ompong says. Exploitative entertainment is not his cup of tea, and he admits that the trend has since died down, citing occupational hazards and in-caravan drama a consequence of such.
Fleeting festivity, constant customs
The perya thrives – and profits – on festivities that are both fleeting and constant. Fleeting, because its oasis of incandescent and neon turn out to be a weeklong mirage of leisure. Constant, because it comes and goes like clockwork – the moment the banderitas are taken down and the poon is stripped off its gaudy adornments, the booths, tables, and rides are slammed tight shut. And as daybreak seeps in, the caravan, teeming with life and gaiety the past few nights, takes off with the entire perya collapsed and loaded into its trucks. They drive off to the next destination where another town or barangay looks forward to their weeklong circus, casino, and chubibo.
The perya caravan might be gone for a while, but it will be back for sure. And as long as Filipinos continue to celebrate fiestas, the perya will keep coming back – same time, next year, and for the following years to come.